And so we have it. Another action-packed 3 days of the Online Retailer Conference in Sydney!

The past 5 years have seen hundreds of retailers and vendors meet to explore new opportunities, share learnings and get inspired by more than a hundred speakers and keynote presentations; this year was no different.

It wasn’t possible to see or hear it all, but here are our top takeaways from the three days of workshops and seminars:


1. Focus on Mobile

Unsurprisingly, mobile was a hot topic this year. On the keynote panel, Gareth Jude from Telstra noted that Australia now has a whopping 84% smartphone penetration in Australia. That means the only non-Asian country behind us is Sweden.

Technology has reached the point where consumers now expect mobile optimised sites. Matthew Dyer, the founder and UX genius behind EatNow, mentioned that it took them two years to launch a mobile site. But lucky they did, as these days a brand cannot get away with launching a mobile site late. Aside from developing an app, EatNow preferred an adaptive mobile template to optimise site load time as much as possible, whilst noting that responsive design reduces development efforts.

But the drivers behind responsive design are also concerned with consumer behaviour. We’re no longer in a place where mobile sites can be the lesser experience of their desktop counterparts. These days, consumers will happily do anything on their smartphones. This includes purchasing highly priced items like furniture, according to Dean Ramler, Founder of Milan Direct.

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2. The Value of Physical

Whilst the conference was primarily about online retail, physical experiences tied into digital were also a big focus of the event. “Stores are not dying,” commented Mark Ward of Officeworks, “If you make your store – physical or otherwise – a compelling experience, they will come”.

The exhibit area spread around the featured space called: The Future Store. This area showcased several retail technologies; from drone delivery to gesture-based window shopping and Hointer’s on-demand change rooms. The standout exhibit was mPort, the winner of the 2014 Best First Time Exhibitor Stand award. mPort is a 3D body scanning booth which aims to match consumer body measurements with the sizing charts of e-commerce stores. Visitors (those willing to strip down to their undies inside the booth) could experience it for the first time.

The importance of a physical store was also reflected in discussions around the growing number of pure play e-commerce stores trying out bricks and mortar, including forerunners like Bonobos, Warby Parker, Birch Box and, most recently, Shoes of Prey (whose award-winning concession store design recently opened in David Jones in Sydney). Pureplays are increasingly exploring how leveraging consumer senses in a phyiscal environemnt can build brand affinity and drive sales, when executed in a relevant and considered way.

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3. On-Demand Retail

Retailers are also fast discovering the cost-saving and revenue driving effects of manufacturing on-demand for consumers. Concept stores are on the rise, with brands gathering consumers’ preferences before finding them the product they desire, instead of overwhelming them with a sea of options. The consumer gets what they want and the retailer saves in inventory and production costs in the long run.

On-demand pure plays, like the custom-shoe maker: Shoes of Prey, are thriving in this digital world. The future of Shoes of Prey, who cleaned up the awards at the Online Retail Industry Awards (ORIAs), is a bright one. Its technology now produces photo-realistic images of consumers custom online designs, which will enable it to easily push online concession products to stores like Nordstrom, customised by a customer’s search results.

Sneaking Duck is also at the forefront of manufacturing on demand, specialising in 3D printing custom glasses. Co-Founder, Mark Capps, inspired the crowd with musings of what capabilities and challenges the future might hold. 3D printing may take the same journey as music; maybe consumers will one day be able to 3D print products like Lego in their own homes, and those designs could be subject to IP laws and piracy. 3D printing could even signal the return of the manufacturing industry to Australian shores, with local production enabling fast day-of delivery, currently offered by few retailers.

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4. Plan Less, Move Quickly

With consumer demands and the speed of technology increasing, so too are the expectations that retailers change the way they grow their online businesses. “Progress over perfection” was the mantra espoused by Willem Vos from Staples Europe in his keynote on how Staples expanded its e-commerce offering across Europe. Mistakes happen, but the bigger mistake is to let market opportunities pass by, while building the perfect launch.

Matthew Dyer of EatNow similarly ended his presentation on EatNow’s mobile journey with praise for agile methods: “Build a product, not a half-arsed product.” Get a minimum viable product out, get it stable and then build more.

What these themes all track back to is a renewed focus on delivering (quickly) the best retail experience to the consumer, however and whenever they choose to transact. Retailers all seem to agree that the key to success in online is to ignore notions of channels. Mark Ward from Officeworks put it simply: It’s not about mobile or in-store, it’s really just about shopping. And it’s all about consistency of the consumer experience across any channel.

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